BY DENNIS CHASE firstname.lastname@example.org
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — With the season just two weeks old, Traverse City Central coach Tom Passinault is still trying to get a read on his football team.
Let alone Traverse City West, Friday’s opponent at Thirlby Field.
The Week 3 Crosstown Showdown date is the earliest in the 17-year history of the rivalry. For 14 years, it was the last game of the regular season. It was then moved to Week 6 the last two seasons.
“Traditionally, with this game being later in the year, we pretty much had an understanding of ourselves and were just scouting the opponent,” Passinault said. “In kind of an awkward way this year, we’re kind of scouting ourselves still. We’re not really sure what our identity is. I would guess Tim (Titans coach Tim Wooer) feels the same way on the West side. We’re still feeling things out and in the meantime we have to prepare for a big football game.
“We’re really, believe it or not, only focusing on our team this week. We’re hardly even talking about the rivalry because we need to improve and get better ourselves.”
The teams will bring identical 1-1 records in the Big North Conference battle. Central is the defending league champion, but West made a statement last Friday with an impressive 21-8 road win at Ogemaw Heights.
The Trojans opened with a 31-23 loss at Marquette, but came back to beat Escanaba 28-7 last Friday.
Asked what he learned about his team in the last two weeks, Passinault responded: “Our kids are resilient. The Marquette loss was tough, but they came back and worked hard.”
Offensively, Central started gaining traction in the second half at Marquette — scoring all 23 points after the break — and had its moments in beating Escanaba.
Junior running back Ethan Campbell has provided explosiveness, rushing for more than 200 yards with five touchdowns. He’s had scoring jaunts of 68 and 36 yards. Junior quarterback Sean Williams threw the ball effectively last week, completing 12 of 15 passes for 120 yards and a score.
Defensively, after giving up three touchdown passes in the opener, the Trojans showed improvement last Friday, limiting Escanaba to 42 yards in the second half. The secondary, which surrendered a long touchdown pass just before half, responded with three picks.
“Our defense is improving week in, week out,” defensive coordinator Eric Schugars said. “That’s what you want. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way in week one. We were worried about our (inexperienced) line ... more concerned about stopping the run. We thought we would do better in the back end. But you work at it, figure it out and get better the next week. And that’s what we did against Escanaba.”
The Trojan defense will face a different challenge in West.
“They’re big and they’re physical,” Schugars said. “That’s something you have to prepare for. You have to teach your kids that this could be a physical game. We know about their size up front. They run the ball and they run the ball well. We know that’s something they want to do and they’re doing it exceptionally well. We’ve watched them on film and they’re very sound. They know their blocking rules. We saw that last week against Ogemaw. They just pounded them.”
In response, that’s meant “tougher” practices this week, linebacker Josiah Lopez-Wild said.
“West has a big line,” he said, “so what we’re going for this week is tough, hard-nosed defense — stop the run game because that’s what they’re going to try to do.”
If the Trojans need a reminder of how stout that Titan running game can be, they can look at film from two years ago. In that contest, West controlled the ball for 34 of the 48 minutes, running 24 more plays in a 14-7 win.
“Every year West is a big, physical team,” Passinault said. “They fit right into the scheme their coaches want to run. It’s an obvious challenge to our defensive line to prepare for their big offensive linemen and just being able to handle those schemes to slow them down. It’s a helpless feeling against West if they’re just rolling you and holding the ball for seven to eight minutes. It’s a big challenge for our defense.”
Last year, the Trojans held West to 50 yards rushing in a 42-28 win, although Titans quarterback Donny Cizek completed 27 of 41 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Cizek has since graduated.
Campbell was the star in 2012. He scored in four different ways — a 99-yard kickoff return, a 22-yard run, a 33-yard reception and a 28-yard halfback pass.
“We have some running backs and if we can get them loose we ‘re in good shape,” Passinault said. “But we’re still working the offensive and defensive lines, trying to make sure (that) becomes a strength for us.”
The Trojans lost their bookend tackles on the offensive line, prompting Passinault to play defensive end Mitch Wynkoop both ways.
“It’s fun to be out there on both sides of the ball and affect the game a lot more,” Wynkoop said.
Although it’s still early September, the Trojans know what’s at stake.
“We’re excited,” Lopez-Wild said. “It’s a big game, probably the biggest we’ll have all year. We’ll play hard and do our best.”
“They’re going to be tough,” Wynkoop added. “They’re a hard-hitting team on film. They always come out with a lot of energy. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
If there is a downfall to playing the game this early, it’s that the losing team will need to get over it — and fast.
“There’s still a lot of football to be played,” Passinault said.
So does he like a Week 3 showdown?
“To be honest with you, no, I don’t like having it this early,” Passinault said. “It seems to be more exciting when some records are established and things are on the line. It is what it is so we’ll go with it.”